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Conspiracy Theories: What Are They and Why Do They Flourish?

Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories have been around for as long as humanity. In recent years, they have flourished to the point where they have caused anger, riots, polarization, and serious damage to our economies- dozens of cell phone towers were set a flame across Europe amid conspiracy theories that the 5G towers were spreading COVID-19. A Wisconsin pharmacist was charged with deliberately destroying hundreds of doses of the available COVID-19 vaccine because he believed a conspiracy theory that the vaccine would change human DNA, etc.

DEFINITIONS:

CONSPIRACY THEORIES can be simply defined by the belief that certain events or situations are secretly manipulated behind the scenes by powerful forces with negative intent.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES HAVE 6 THINGS IN COMMON:

1. An alleged, secret plot.

2. A group of conspirators.

3. ‘Evidence’ that seems to support the conspiracy theory.

4. They falsely suggest that nothing happens by accident and that there are no coincidences; nothing is as it appears and everything is connected.

5. They divide the world into good or bad.

6. They scapegoat people and groups.

WHY DO THEY FLOURISH?

Conspiracy theories often appear as a logical explanation of events or situations which are difficult to understand so they bring a false sense of control, especially in times of uncertainty.

They often start as a suspicion. They ask who is benefiting from the event or situation and thus identify the conspirators. Any ‘evidence’ is then forced to fit the theory.

Once they have taken root, conspiracy theories can grow quickly. They are hard to refute because any person who tries is seen as being part of the conspiracy.

Most conspiracy theorists are totally convinced that their theories are the absolute truth, while others deliberately want to provoke, manipulate or target people for political or financial reasons.

HOW CONSPIRACY THEORIES DAMAGE:

  1. They identify an enemy and a secret plot that threatens peoples’ lives or beliefs and spark a defence mechanism, which can fuel discrimination, justify hate crimes and can be exploited by violent extremist groups.
  2. They spread mistrust in public institutions, which can lead to political apathy or radicalization.
  3. They spread mistrust in scientific and medical information, which can have serious consequences.

HOW TO IDENTIFY A CONSPIRACY THEORY?

UNLIKELY TO BE A CONSPIRACY THEORY

  • The author has recognized qualifications and credentials in the topic
  • The author uses verifiable facts and evidence from scientific or academic research
  • The source has been quoted by several reputable media outlets
  • The information is backed by many scientists/academics
  • Independent fact-checking websites support the source and related claims
  • The author does not shy away from exploring complexity, including different perspectives
  • The author is prepared to acknowledge limits to their knowledge
  • The tone is objective, factual

LIKELY TO BE A CONSPIRACY THEORY

  • The author is a self-proclaimed expert and is not attached to a reputable organization or institution
  • The author claims to have credentials but they don’t withstand scrutiny or are suspended
  • The source of information is not clear
  • The information is shared only by self-proclaimed experts
  • Independent fact-checking websites do not support the source and have refuted related claims
  • The author presents their information as the only valid truth
  • The author raises questions instead of providing answers
  • The author demonizes whoever they assume is behind the alleged secret plot
  • The tone is subjective, emotionally charged
  • Emotional images or anecdotes are used to illustrate the message

DEBUNKING CONSPIRACY THEORIES– Facts and logic matter

DOs

  1. Focus on the facts you want to communicate, not the myth you want to debunk.
  2. Choose your target – the author, source or logic behind the conspiracy theory.
  3. Always state clearly that the information is wrong, before quoting a conspiracy theory.
  4. Provide a fact-based alternative explanation.
  5. If possible, use visual aids to back your argument.

DON’Ts

  1. Don’t focus on the conspiracy theory first. Don’t reinforce it.
  2. Don’t overwhelm with information.


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